“Ugh! If it’s classic is has to be bad!”
So many times I see people saying that they hated this or that book when they read it in school, or that the book was for ever ruined for them by being assigned reading.
To be countered by readers who say that they never would have tried various authors if they hadn’t had to in school, and that a great teacher taught them how to read in depth.
I’m already afraid of the way higher education is trending–squeezing out reading literature at all in high school, and limiting literature classes in colleges in favor of expanding business ed– but that’s another discussion.
And I do think that books can be badly taught, what with emphasis on tests, memorization, grades. Or being told to find thirty similes and twenty-five metaphors, six examples of Man Vs. Nature and ten of Man vs. Man–that kind of grinding assignment could kill any interest in the best book ever, and while it forces the student to comb through the text, more often than not they are totally missing the sense of it.
Counterbalancing that are the instructors who are passionate about literature and who can convey that passion to their students, who then banish the fear of great literature, or reading deeply, and send their students off maybe not with a marketable skill, but with a lifelong love of books.
But passion can work against you when you are told what you are to think.
I got in trouble in high school for writing a paper on the homoeroticism in Billy Budd. The many quotes I pulled seemed to make the instructor–who loved the book, but felt there was one true interpretation–madder. I was supposed to see a Christ analogy, which I didn’t, because I thought Budd was a sap. A pretty one, but he wasn’t changing anyone’s paradigm. I know my teen self was callow, but in trying to force me to give up my own view of the book and adopt his, the teacher wasn’t teaching me to analyze literature so much as to parrot his ideas.
We all know that the idea of assigned reading is to broaden one’s knowledge as well as to hone one’s reading skills. Classroom literary analysis is like exercise—you do it so you’ll be better at doing other things.
Of course if you love doing the form of exercise, it changes everything. Also if you love exploratory reading, you are more likely to venture out of your comfort zone, which is another motivation behind assigned reading.
I think learning to talk about one’s reading in a setting where there is no competition, and everyone’s ideas are valid, is the ideal. During my teenage years I walked miles once a month in the dusty L.A. heat, and took all-day bus rides, just to gather at various people’s homes to discuss mythopoeic literature, because at that time, few in my immediate environment loved it like I did.
I have always enjoyed reading about others’ reading in letters and autobiographies. What did other writers find in books that I’ve read—did we like or dislike it for similar reasons? Though I enjoy reading literary criticism, my own readerly inclinations lean toward immersion. I am well aware of critics who despise that. For them, reading is an intellectual game or puzzle, the reader maintaining control by always aware of the fourth wall.
My delight in diving straight through that wall into the world of the book can leave behind that intellectual sense of control, a little like diving straight out of your bathing suit. You find the little bits of fabric floating about on the surface, and everyone suitably clad might utter urbane laughter, but oh, the sensation of water directly on the skin! I read to live other lives outside of my own.
Many of my ‘deep dive reading’ books are the ones I’ve read and reread many, many times over many years. They might not be comfort reads, or favorites, but some element draws me back.
Sometimes that passion can end. Other times it will last a lifetime. Those endless discussions of Lord of the Rings that I enjoyed as a teen have ended but I still love seeing what others think of those books as I reread them myself.
The excitement–the anticipation of what will happen–is long gone. I read Tolkien’s work more leisurely now, but with a different sort of enjoyment, in ways deeper and equally intense. Right now I’m blogging a reread over here.
Some well-loved books don’t hold up to rereading over a lifetime. There are certain Georgette Heyers, for example, that I shake my head at and bypass with a “Not this time,” though I checked them out over and over when I was a teen. Regency Buck is no longer a favorite, with its constant humiliations of the heroine at every turn, the ‘happy ending’ comprised of her falling into the arms of the guy who, eugh, mastered her. Back in the day, that was a standard plot, and we shrugged and read around it. Now, I don’t want to encounter that plot–and yet it still turns up in new books, so it’s obviously working for some readers.
But I have never in all my years tired of Pride and Prejudice, which deploys humiliation equally, the male, for all his pride, having as much to learn as the female about her prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice has disclosed many layers that were invisible to me at the time: how new this type of story was in so many respects; the emotional cost of Delicacy (silence); the invisible rules of class. The wit and observations that I was oblivious to as a young reader, looking for romance.
I am always observing something new when I reread it, yet the irony and passion and tiny-but-true observations about human behavior continue to delight me, or to cause me to ponder when I don’t agree.
Sometimes I wonder if deep reading–uncounted rereads–over decades might bring a reader closer to the shape of the book that the author saw. If we know a text so well we can almost shut our eyes and write it verbatim, is there a chance we might be able to glimpse the work more through the author’s eyes than our own? Or is that impossible because we all come from such different life experiences?